Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The public and why we should bother

Seven years ago, the Oxford Farming Conference commissioned some research into the public perception of farming amongst the general public. The findings were very heartening, suggesting that sentiment towards farmers was positive, with farmers being seen as some of the most hard-working people in our communities.

This positive perception is valuable to every farm and something, I feel, that we all have a responsibility to contribute to by taking the time to understand our non-farming neighbours and to befriend, or at least, talk to them.

There are farmers who are exceptional at taking the time to communicate about our industry.  For those selling produce direct or running tourism businesses, it’s clearly essential for them to build a good rapport with our public, but I believe that every farmer needs the goodwill of our wider community for a whole host of reasons. And also, I believe that all farmers have a responsibility not to let their farming ‘team mates’ down in the industry’s PR.

Take our negotiations with Westminster; agriculture’s well-crafted arguments need to be heard. Views on the need, and types of, on-going support can be both echoed or decried by members of our wider communities. Those in healthcare might think that they are far more in need of funding, whilst teachers could argue that our nation’s education is far more worthy of the contents of the public purse.

Farming also needs the goodwill of our non-farming neighbours for a host of practical reasons - when you’re driving beasts to market and holding up the school-run traffic, the necessary spraying of glyphosate close to someone’s garden fence, or when a cow dies in a field close to a housing estate. If people have goodwill towards farming and understand why certain activities are undertaken, it surely helps ease relationships.

We can look to Europe to learn from the good and bad situations. In France, the perception of conventional farmers is very poor indeed, verging on a dogmatic hatred for anything that isn’t organic or ecological in practice. This is in no small part down to the strong and well-coordinated NGO lobby. The voices of the non-farming believers are really blighting many producers’ businesses, and countering these negative views is a big role (and cost) for the French farming unions and young farmers’ groups.

In contrast, Italian farmers benefit from the country’s tremendous food culture, and are well supported financially, as well as in sentiment, by public and policy-makers alike.

We are extremely lucky to have some great ambassadors for our industry – chefs, royalty, celebrities and journalists - whether we agree with their views or not. But the unsung heroes surely have to be those farmers who make the effort to visit schools to talk to children, or those who get up early on a cold Saturday morning to set up their stalls at a farmers’ market, or the growing numbers who swing wide their gates for Open Farm Sunday.

Whatever we can do to promote our industry, however small, we must do. Just think about our French neighbours and their ordeals, we don’t want to end up with the same plight, do we? 

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